Roots and Shoots: Seeing the Trees in the Forest

Tools available to manage wooded properties

All around Philipstown, we live in the woods. For many transplants, it was our reason to move here. For others, it’s the reason to stay. Being surrounded by trees yet having one of the world’s greatest cities within commuting distance is a serious perk.

Forests aren’t doing so well, though. There are numerous threats from pests and disease to canopy trees like maples, oaks, hemlock, ash and beech. Gypsy moths defoliate oaks and after three years of losing their leaves, the trees are so weakened that they die. The emerald ash borer, a nasty insect that girdles the bark of ash trees, also has been found locally. Anyone with a hemlock tree has probably had it diagnosed with an infestation from the woolly adelgid; it’s been active in our area for three decades.

The understory trees like red bud, viburnum, spice bush and dogwood are also facing devastation from pests and disease. The viburnum leaf beetle defoliates the shrub in a matter of days. Native dogwoods have been lost to the fungus dogwood anthracnose. Heavy browsing by deer destroys the seedlings and saplings of native understory vegetation and in their place we get invasive plants like Japanese barberry, multiflora rose, garlic mustard, common buckthorn and mugwort, among others.

A sugar maple's brilliant leaves on a fall day. (Photo by P. Doan) 

A sugar maple’s brilliant leaves on a fall day. (Photo by P. Doan)

In addition, there is pressure on species from global warming. Heavier precipitation events, longer periods of drought and warmer temperatures weaken plant and tree populations. Changing conditions create opportunities for new pests. The Southern Pine Beetle is making its way north as is kudzu, known as the vine that ate the South.

Chris Zimmerman, a conservation ecologist with The Nature Conservancy, has analyzed data from the U.S. Forest Service and projects that by 2027, eastern New York (which includes the Catskills and Hudson Highlands) will have lost 25 percent of its forest canopy. Some of our native species, like the hemlock, may be depleted by more than 50 percent. The really disturbing news is that forests are having a difficult time regenerating because native plants are outcompeted for light, water and nutrients by invasive plants.

Trees cover 63 percent of New York state and the majority of that land, 74 percent, is owned privately. This means landowners play an important role in protecting and conserving these resources. Zimmerman developed an online resource, the Decision Analysis Tool, to assist. The DAT can evaluate your strategy for controlling invasive species, including a cost-benefit analysis, the long-term viability of your plans and how effective the technique you’ve chosen will be.

“The rule of thumb is to manage smaller populations first and contain them from spreading to areas that aren’t invaded,” Zimmerman explained. “The DAT gives guidance on when eradication is more feasible, and then strategies on how to manage so you can get adequate forest regeneration, wildflowers, native plants, and be able to walk through it.”

The DAT also helps determine if there is an unintended result from the effort. Zimmerman used the example of removing bush honeysuckle, only to have garlic mustard spread abundantly. He emphasized that it all comes down to what the landowner’s goals are for the property.

The trick is to have enough knowledge and experience to come up with a strategy and many landowners don’t have that knowledge base. Zimmerman acknowledged that the DAT is geared toward land managers. As an alternative, he suggested MyWoodlot, a project from the Watershed Agricultural Council that has more accessible information about how to care for a forest such as video tutorials on tree identification (a first step is to inventory the trees and plants in your woods), invasive species, setting goals and coming up with a long-term plan for forest management.

Asking yourself what matters most is the basic question. Do you enjoy wildlife? Birds? Do you want to be able to hike? Grow food? Create an income stream? Conserve the land for diverse habitats? All of these things are possible, but won’t happen on their own with all of the encroaching problems.

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